Previous article in this series: November 15, 2012, p. 81.
“I will praise thee, O Lord, among the people: I will sing unto thee among the nations.”
“I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.”
In our previous article, we considered that the Psalms were given to us in the Scriptures especially so that we would sing them. We also noticed that the Lord’s command to us in His Word is that we sing the Psalms. Our Psalter, the 100th anniversary of which we celebrate this year, serves us well as we seek to obey the biblical calling to sing the Psalms.
Our Psalter is also part of a long and glorious history of following this calling in the church of Christ. Singing Psalms is not a Dutch peculiarity. Nor is it a practice unique to the Reformed tradition. Although psalm-singing has an important place in the Reformed tradition, it has been practiced by the church universal throughout her history.
The Old Testament Church Sang Psalms
Singing Psalms is at least as old as Moses. Psalm 90, for example, was written by this Old Testament leader in the church and recorded in the church’s inspired songbook. David sang to the Lord with Psalms and appointed Levites to learn and sing those songs of the Lord. Old Testament saints used the Psalms in worship both in the temple and later in the synagogues.
The Early New Testament Church Sang Psalms
Following this good beginning, the church of the apostles’ time continued to sing the Psalms. As we noticed already, the church was instructed to do so by the apostles as recorded in Scripture in, , and . The apostles themselves, consistent with the instruction they gave the churches, sang Psalms—the only songs known by the church at that time. This is how we understand , for example: “And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God . . . .”
In the time period of the post-apostolic church, the Psalms were widely sung and were the songs by which the faithful people of God praised Him. The church fathers of this period wrote of the fact that the practice at that time was to sing the Psalms. Tertullian (c. A.D. 155-230) tells us that psalm-singing was part of worship and daily life. Eusebius (c. A.D. 260-340) wrote: “The command to sing psalms in the name of the Lord was obeyed by everyone in every place.” Augustine (A.D. 343-340) reports in his Confessions regarding the Psalms: “They are sung through the whole world.”
Heretics, on the other hand, used hymns at this time to promote their false teachings. Those who sought to spread the error of Gnosticism, for example, employed this tactic. Because of this, the church took official action. In A.D. 363, the Council of Laodicea took a decision prohibiting the singing of uninspired hymns in the church. This decision the church again later confirmed at the important Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451), the Council that also gave us the Creed of Chalcedon. The early church was conscious of its calling and was committed to being a psalm-singing church.
During the Middle Ages, along with generally all other aspects of its spirituality, the church also atrophied with regard to its singing. The monks sang, rather than the common people. The tunes were complex and became increasingly so as the centuries passed. The songs were usually sung in Latin, a language the common people did not understand. Interestingly, however, what the monks chanted was often the Psalms. In this time period too, then, the church, albeit through her monks, continued to sing the Psalms.
The Reformation-Era Church Sang Psalms
However, the Lord’s calling to sing the Psalms was not meant only for church clergy, but for all of God’s people. The Reformation era reinstated this understanding of psalm-singing as well as the biblical practice. The Reformers restored congregational singing and singing in one’s own native language. They also emphasized again the importance and superiority of singing the Psalms.
There were, at this time, many who were busy in writing songs for the church to sing in praise to the God who, it was rediscovered, was a God of sovereign, free grace. Many of these songs for the church, written by thankful hearts newly liberated from Rome’s tyranny, were the Psalms set to music.
Both Luther and Calvin themselves wrote versifications of the Psalms. Many others did as well. Calvin worked toward a publication of a psalter that was first published in 1539, and went through various editions in the years following. In 1562, a complete edition of this “Genevan Psalter” was published that contained versifications of all 150 Psalms.
In the Preface to the Genevan Psalter, Calvin explained his commitment to psalm-singing. He wrote, “The Psalms incite us to praise God, to pray to Him, to meditate on His works to the end that we love Him, fear, honor and glorify Him. What Saint Augustine says is quite true, one cannot sing anything more worthy of God than that which we have received from Him.” Calvin believed that singing the Psalms best served the end goal of the child of God—that of glorifying His God. He explains, “Wherefore, although we look far and wide and search on every hand, we shall not find better songs nor songs better suited to that end than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and uttered through him. And for this reason, when we sing them we may be certain that God puts the words in our mouths as if He Himself sang in us to exalt His glory.”
The Post-Reformation Church Sang Psalms
These convictions of Calvin other Reformed Christians came to share as well. The commitment to psalm-singing, and in many cases singing Psalms exclusively, was reflected in the practice of Reformed churches for the next 200 years.
But psalm-singing was so widespread it was really the Christian practice at this time, rather than the practice in Reformed churches alone. The Scottish Presbyterians insisted strongly on exclusive psalmody. Singing the Psalms also prevailed among Congregationalists, Baptists, Puritans, and even among Anglicans and Episcopalians. In fact, the first book printed in America was a psalter, the Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640. The Psalms were the songs of Protestantism until around 1800.
Around 1800, many began to include hymns in their songbooks, but still usually with the psalms given place of preference, being placed in the front of the books. Over time, however, more and more hymns crowded out the psalms in the churches’ songbooks and worship. In 1871, the United Presbyterians created a book of psalmody entitled The Book of Psalms, to attempt to withstand the trend toward including hymns in the songbooks of the church. This publication provided the basis for the Psalter of 1912.
In 1893, the same United Presbyterian denomination formed a committee that was to work with the other denominations with which it had ecumenical ties to produce a new psalter that would be the mutual property of the churches. Again, this was done to stand against the growing tide of hymns used in worship and to stand for the use of versifications of the God-breathed Psalms. The committee labored over the next several years to produce a psalter that was faithful to the Psalms of Scripture, poetic, and of high musical quality. In 1912, the work was complete and nine denominations saw the publication of a new psalter, which became known as the Psalter of 1912, or simply “The Psalter.”
One of the denominations that officially adopted the Psalter of 1912 for use in its churches was the CRC, our mother church, who adopted it in 1914. The Psalter was the songbook of the CRC until the publication of the first Psalter Hymnal in 1934.
When our fathers were separated from the CRC in 1924, they continued to use the 1912 Psalter, and we have continued to do so to the present. In using the Psalter, we sing the Psalms. In singing the Psalms, we sing with the faithful church, as throughout her history she has recognized and obeyed the calling to sing the Psalms.
. . . to be concluded.